While they got a very bad name during the Middle Ages, indulgences – reductions of one’s time in purgatory after death – today are granted by the Catholic Church to those who accomplish certain tasks inspired by devotion.
This week, attendance at the upcoming Catholic World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro has been deemed by the Vatican’s sacred apostolic penitentiary to be one of these undertakings. And in the interest of inclusion – not everyone can just pop off to Brazil – the church has begun offering indulgences to those who follow Pope Francis on Twitter, provided they do so piously.
Contrary to what has been widely reported and roundly mocked, simply following His Holiness’s tweets, as 7.5 million people already do, will not get you to heaven any more quickly if you do it in the same spirit in which you might follow Kanye West. Retweeting the Pope doesn’t mean that you’re allowed to masturbate or anything, if that’s what you’re thinking.
There is no “Like us on Facebook for a chance to win eternal salvation!” notice being sent out by the church, and no free ringtones will be given out if you orchestrate a certain number of conversions. Church authorities have made it clear that sincere engagement with the material presented is required.
Catholicism is embracing modern communication platforms. The church currently has a Facebook page, and a news portal – any latter-day Martin Luthers need only hack its website to deliver a message. The church also plans to use Pinterest, which at first made me think it had agreed to start ordaining bunny rabbits or whimsically icing the communion wafers. But really this is a natural step for a faith that has always embraced pageantry.
Part of what we’re witnessing with this Twitter offer is the dawning of the ePilgrimage. Millions of potential basement pilgrims are being welcomed into the fold, very possibly in their underwear.
But the church is very old and the Internet is very young. Jokes will be made. Errors will be made. Right now, it’s as if the entire world is watching its collective grandmother learn to use a computer.
I can criticize the Catholic Church for a lot of things, but I find that I can’t begrudge it trying to carve out a niche on the Internet. Nor can I see the two entities as incompatible strangers.
Almost every comment thread boils down to something close to an argument over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. And since the birth of the blog, there has been a misunderstanding, one that the church also has had to confront, that the confessing of a sin alone absolves the sinner.
In addition, I imagine that, from a priest’s point of view anyway, there has always been a Chatroulette element to confession. So I’m sure that the church will feel at home on the Web.
If a mistake has been made this week, it’s in reminding the non-Catholic populace that indulgences exist at all. They can seem absurd to outsiders. Bringing them to attention in the context of the fertile mockery ground of the Internet – well, that was just asking for trouble.
But perhaps, in order to show us how well it has mastered the medium, the church was trolling us all this week. And the bait was taken. No one stopped to consider that, in 2001, Pope John Paul II granted indulgences to Catholics who walked through the bronze door of St. Peter’s Basilica. Why should the same offer not be made to the faithful on Twitter to whom Rome is out of reach?
The church’s Twitter pronouncement was not the birth of the ridiculous – it was its democratization.
Until quite recently, I used to wake some mornings and see that I had 87 or so e-mails in my inbox. My mind would reel at the possibility of what wonders they might contain. And then I’d open them and find that 82 were from my grandmother. All the e-mails would say the exact same thing and they were all sent minutes apart.
I loved that my grandmother, in her 90s, was trying to master the Internet. I suspect that, were she still alive, she would be following @Pontifex on Twitter.